Level up your descriptions with this one simple trick

While many people have tried writing long, expansive pieces about advanced techniques to run games and improve your gamemaster abilities, most of the best and most useful suggestions actually seem to come from very short posts. They are things that are so simply that there just isn’t much to say about them and no real point in elaborating on them with complex examples.

One such piece I stumbled upon in Bryce’s review of Zaratazarat’s Manse.

The rooms tend to start with a brief descriptor like “crammed storeroom” or “cluttered library.” I like this sort of overloaded room title stuff. It orients the DM immediately to the type of room to come and puts them in the right frame of mind to receive the description information following. You’re already thinking about a cluttered library and imagining it when you start to scan the description and I believe that helps to leverage the description to more than it is.

Boom. What an insight! I’m probably not the only person who reads tenfootpole but never buys any published adventures. That dude knowns how to build adventures, because he keeps reading and reviewing hundreds of them even though almost all turn out to be pretty terrible. And I think he’s exactly right on this one:

Start the description of a new room with “This is a [adjective] [room].” and then point out the interesting and relevant features.

This is stupidly simple to the point of being trivial. But if it were obvious, then everyone would already be doing it, and it would be in the GM section of every RPG. But it’s not. There are so many examples both in published adventures and written advice for new GMs in which the GM goes down a long list of details that obvious make a room a kitchen, while going out of his way to mention the word kitchen. And then the players are supposed to go “Oh, I think this might be a kitchen” and the GM can smile smugly and say “It looks to you like it could be.” This whole exercise is pointless. It accomplishes nothing. All that it does is provide more noise to drown out the signal. It’s not like players stop caring after three sentences of description. It’s simply that the average human brain can only process so much verbal information to construct a mental image from it. As a GM, you have a limited capacity for information that you can communicate in a description of a room or NPCs. You want to get as much useful information into that as you can and not waste anything on useless data. A good description should have as positive a signal to noise ratio as you can get.

Starting a description with an evocative adjective is perfect for that purpose. That one adjective provides a context for everything that comes after it. If I begin the description of a kitchen with being “filthy”, then the players will envision every knife, pot, and plate that I mention to be grimy and dirty and covered in who knows what without having to waste more of my precious limited words. By establishing a general tone for the room first, the players are able to imagine an appropriate space to which they can then add any further features that will be mentioned. Listing all the important features first and then trying to establish an overall feel and tone for the whole scene in front of the player will require me to wax on poetically for much longer than simply using a single good adjective at the very start.

What you don’t want is to get six disconnected features that the players all have to hold in their mind and then bring together into a single image. Instead of blind people describing the part of an elephant they are touching, begin your description with the big picture and zoom in. Start with a terrifying giant beast charging at you, then bother with mentioning its grey skin, huge head, and giant tusks.

It’s generally frowned upon in RPG circles to describe things to players in ways that mention how the PCs feel or what they do. (Which still doesn’t stop this from happening way to often.) And while this is generally right, you can go too far and be needlessly obtuse. Yes, evocative adjectives generally include some kind of qualitative judgement. When you call something filthy, overcrowded, cramped, or lavish, this can be a subjective opinion. But to a large extend, such things are not particularly controversial to say. There generally is a pretty good consensus about these things, so using them in discrptions for what the characters see does not intrude on the players’ agency to a meaningful extend. Telling the players “This is a filthy kitchen” is a very different thing from telling them “This kitchen is so filthy that it makes you feel nauseous and wanting to turn away in disgust.” Players might envision their characters as someone who is unaffected by filth and gore or feels offended more than disgusted. But even in those situations, the characters probably would not dispute that the place is filthy. Stick to adjectives that describe what is materially present, rather than feeling, and you should be fine. “Filthy” describes the room. “Disgusting” is more descriptive of the observer.

What I really like about this method is how stupidly simple it is. When you plan out a location and make notes for the individual rooms, you can put the primary adjective right into the description. Don’t label it as the “kitchen” but as the “filthy kitchen”. And when it comes to the players reaching the room and you pull out your notes to tell them what they see, simply start with reading out the name of the room. “This is a filthy kitchen.” I don’t think there’s any other method to describe rooms, people, or important object that gives you this much payoff from just a single word.

5 thoughts on “Level up your descriptions with this one simple trick”

  1. I find this sort of thing also works with monster descriptions. Orc with scimitar and One-eye Orc are better than Orc #1 and Orc #2 when the players are trying to pick out who they want to fight.

    Lastly, in addition to the pithy room description I like to add the room dimensions (30×40). Yes, it’s a small thing to count the squares at the table, but I find it trivial to do it beforehand and like having it there ready to go.

    1. I think it applies really to any descriptions. When you see a castle behind the hill or reach the edge of a forest, having a defining adjective right at the start helps a lot with the players visualizing what is before their characters.

  2. If you’re talking about a one-page dungeon, this is great. Describe the entire room with 5 words or less – all of them description-heavy.

    If each room is given its own entry, this becomes redundant. The “Filthy Kitchen” room heading will undoubtedly be repeated under the heading… “This kitchen is filthy.” Not necessarily, but I can see that happening.

    Is there a chance the GM wants the kitchen to look another way, not dirty but cluttered? Anyway, not a big deal. I’m probably just playing Devil’s advocate.

    1. I was thinking primarily of personal notes.
      For published adventures, the additional step of communicating information from the writer to the GM does at a lot more elements that need to be considered. I never actually tried my hand at writing area descriptions for publishing, so I never really thought about how I would approach that.

  3. I think it depends on the style and depth of the entry itself. If you are talking old style ‘boxed texts’ that are multiple paragraphs long, then having some redundancy isn’t a bad thing.

    The room being keyed “Filthy Kitchen” immediately gets me on the right page with my understanding of the room – without having to read into the rooms entry itself.

    It also assists with skim navigation. ‘2D. Kitchen’ might not stick in my memory, especially if there is also ’13D. Kitchen’ but if we have ‘2.D Filthy Kitchen’ and ’13D. Lavish Kitchen’ is the kind of redundancy I can get behind!

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